Intimate History

A grand history and an elegiac new film explore Britain’s recent, and irrecoverable, past.

Davies and Kynaston also share villains: the urban planners and bureaucrats who, blinded by a grandiose technocratic ideology, refused to heed what one of them dismissed as “the inarticulate yearnings of the average working-class housewife” and so razed century-old slums, tore apart neighborhoods, and moved their occupants out of the city centers to stack them up in Brutalist tower blocks. The result, as Davies depicts in a haunting sequence of edited footage (accompanied by Peggy Lee’s rendition of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”), was that those intact communities disintegrated into atomized agglomerations, and both the ravaged Victorian working-class neighborhoods and the housing projects quickly degenerated into blighted, violent, garbage-and-graffiti-strewn ghettos.

Kynaston, who has a genius for the deadpan anecdote, offhandedly captures the plight of the deracinated beneficiaries of the planners’ largesse and the obliviousness of their tribunes: Lena Jeger, a Labour candidate for MP,

was canvassing in a block of flats when she met a woman in the lift and addressed her on the issue of German rearmament. “People have been pissing in this lift,” replied the woman. “What are you going to do about it?” To which Jeger said that, if elected, she could not promise to be able to stop this. “Well,” riposted the woman, “if you can’t stop people pissing in lifts, how are you going to stop Germans rearming?”

International critics—a hardened bunch, most of whom had no doubt never seen Liverpool—wept at Of Time and the City’s premiere at Cannes. The extraordinary acclaim for the film, I think, has less to do with its rendering of the loss of an external world, the city of Davies’s childhood, than with its rendering of the loss of an internal one: the security and happiness of childhood itself and the family life that engenders and sustains it—a loss that is as universal as it is inevitable. (What parent isn’t acutely—painfully—aware of how fleeting is the episode of a family’s life with young children?) Throughout his oeuvre, Davies dwells lovingly on the smallest detail of his “land of lost content” (to quote him quoting A Shropshire Lad). This fixation never lapses into the sentimental, because it’s so obviously despairing. His is perhaps the most romantic sensibility in cinema today, but all his vibrant romantic hope looks backward and is therefore sterile—which makes it all the more affecting.

In this, a movie filled with lyrical scenes of the past, the only lyrical scenes of contemporary Liverpool are clips Davies shot of children with their mothers, from the point of view of one banished from the kingdom. (Historically minded viewers will notice that the accompanying music—the berceuse from Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite—was used as the opening theme to the long-running radio series from Davies’s youth, the sweet, literate Listen With Mother, a show of stories and songs for the under-5 set and their mothers. Kynaston assessed the program’s impact on a generation of children in his first volume.) One of very few romantic passages in all of Orwell’s work—and one that takes a similar perspective of the outsider looking in on a blissful world—is a vision that the lower-upper-middle-class author who was separated from his parents as a young boy invoked of working-class family life:

I have often been struck by the peculiar easy completeness, the perfect symmetry as it were, of a working-class interior at its best. Especially on winter evenings after tea, when the fire glows in the open range and dances mirrored in the steel fender, when Father, in shirt-sleeves, sits in the rocking chair at one side of the fire reading the racing finals, and Mother sits on the other with her sewing, and the children are happy with a pennorth of mint humbugs, and the dog lolls roasting himself on the rag mat.

Davies’s work is replete with similar moments, though the difference is that Orwell, romanticizing what he didn’t know, put the father at the center of the picture, and failed to bring any agency into the scene. Davies, on the other hand, leaves no doubt as to the figure creating his happiness, preparing that toast and cocoa after the day at New Brighton and arranging those tangerines in tissue paper: his mother. Which isn’t to suggest an oedipal preoccupation, only that Davies grasps that family life and childhood contentment are orchestrated by a presiding intelligence, almost always female, and nourished by a thousand domestic details, meaningless in themselves. Davies has said that Humphrey Jennings’s classic Listen to Britain, a 19-minute wartime documentary, was the inspiration for Of Time and the City; I’d bet that his deepest inspiration was Jennings’s loveliest scene, in which a woman with a son in the army looks out from an upper-story window on small children at play in a schoolyard across the street. (Davies, uncannily, has found several pieces of archival footage that echo that scene.)

Of course, the fleetingness, and the awareness of the fleetingness, of childhood and family happiness is hardly a novel artistic theme. It lies at the heart of, say, Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” (a poem conspicuously absent in Davies’s narration) and Little Women—and, for that matter, “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” Meet Me in St. Louis (one of Davies’s favorite movies, which he has discerned “tapped into something primal, almost like a fairy tale”), and, well, that famous Carousel scene in Mad Men. But usually the accompanying emotion is merely rue, and the intended effect cathartic—the acceptance of loss. This film insists that the loss is absolute and all-consuming. Davies has often said of his childhood, with a conviction as though freshly wounded, that he will never again be so happy. At first that remark seems naive or perverse or, at the very least, immature. But Davies’s genius—and no doubt much of his chronic discontent, a psychological state to which he readily attests—lies in his inability to reconcile himself to that passing. Davies’s nostalgia, I think it’s fair to say, isn’t exactly that of an integrated adult, as the mental-hygiene professionals would put it. But owing to his immaturity and his solipsism, that land of lost content has rarely been recalled so insistently and its loss raged against so defiantly. In averring that his wound will not heal—I will never be so protected and I will never be so loved, he seems to mourn—Davies forces his audience to recognize that they are similarly afflicted.

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.

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